Early June Dispatch

It's been a couple inertial weeks since the end of the semester, but now that I'm relatively settled in Queens for the summer, I'll have no excuse not to be more productive with my time. 

I posted my tentative summer reading plans earlier, and I managed to sneak in Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in between Dubliners and Murphy. First, a few words about Joyce's Dubliners:

Slick drawing of James Joyce (1922) - Djuna Barnes
Having read Joyce in reverse order (Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but no Finnegan's Wake—at least not yet), I was pleased to find that Dubliners was just as readable as his later works, if primarily different in style and form. The writing is noticeably more tame, i.e., more conventional in its close-third person narrative style and without the same spatial and temporal flexibility of his later works, but, on the whole, the prose is distinctively Joycean. There were a couple moments that stood out as maybe being less than Joyce's best, like this gem from "A Mother:"
Her face was inundated with an angry colour and she looked as if she would attack someone with her hands.  
Some of these prose hiccups seem ripe for some college writing workshop-style feedback, but maybe this is only because Joyce was still developing his facility with translating sensation and experience into prose and was still stuck with some of the inferior prose tools that were still in use. There's a moment in Pirsig's Zen that called this to mind: the narrator is describing his experience as an expository writing teacher, who has a student with paralyzing writer's block. He asks her to write about the city of Bozeman, and when she returns empty-handed, asks her to narrow her focus to a single street, and then a single building; when she replies that she still can't write, he asks her to write about a single brick of a building for an essay, which cures her writer's block:
She was blocked because she was trying to repeat, in her writing, things she had already heard, just as on the first day he had tried to repeat things he had already decided to say. She couldn’t think of anything to write about Bozeman because she couldn’t recall anything she had heard worth repeating. She was strangely unaware that she could look and see freshly for herself, as she wrote, without primary regard for what had been said before. The narrowing down to one brick destroyed the blockage because it was so obvious she had to do some original and direct seeing.
In Joyce's case, I had the sense that Dubliners was trying to do too much of what had been done already—traditional means of characterization, symbolism, etc.—not because that was what Joyce wanted to do, necessarily, but because that was what he was working with at the time. I've thought about the intersection of Coltrane and Joyce before, albeit always superficially, but when I hear earlier Coltrane, I always get a sense of a feeling of constraint by existing bebop conventions. Coltrane sounds great, sure, as Joyce writes perfectly fine prose in Dubliners, but it's not the stuff that makes either of them great.

There's a great deal to talk about with Zen, the first topic of which is the genre of the work. Wikipedia describes it as a "philosophical novel," but I realized partway through the book that it's basically a pretty radical work of creative nonfiction: parts of it are fictionalized, but the fusion of memoir, embellishment, and nonliterary information (the philosophical meditation sections, which Pirsig dubs "Chautauquas," alluding to the late-19th, early-20th c. American traveling education and culture movement) establishes the work in my mind as a creative expansion of nonfiction writing. In fact, at one point, the narrator (Pirsig) identifies a limitation of one standard nonfiction form, the essay, and I'm tempted to read Pirsig's hybrid memoir-philosophical work as offering a formal response to the limitations of that particular form:
The trouble is that essays always have to sound like God talking for eternity, and that isn’t the way it ever is. People should see that it’s never anything other than just one person talking from one place in time and space and circumstance. It’s never been anything else, ever, but you can’t get that across in an essay. 
Although the book is often categorized as "New Age," it's not particularly breezy reading, especially if you don't have a background in Western philosophical history; I wouldn't say it assumes any background in philosophical, but Zen, like a critical essay, establishes an existing philosophical conversation for the reader and then situates itself in that ongoing dialogue, which does take some work to keep up with. After I finished the book, I discovered a devoted community of Pirsig admirers, including this interesting philosophy/literature blog and MOQ (Metaphysics of Quality, which is Pirsig's whole deal in Zen). I won't embarrass myself by trying to summarize Pirsig's philosophy (there's already enough critical writing on the topic as it is), but I did want to note one metaphor that I found particularly acute: at one point, Pirsig talks about an "analytic knife," which is referring to the process of making categories in trying to subdivide a bigger thing into its parts, e.g., a motorcycle! He points out that when people are explaining how things work, the knife is something you, the listener or receiver of information, is receiving:

The fourth is that there is a knife moving here. A very deadly one; an intellectual scalpel so swift and so sharp you sometimes don’t see it moving. You get the illusion that all those parts are just there and are being named as they exist. But they can be named quite differently and organized quite differently depending on how the knife moves. 
For example, the feedback mechanism which includes the camshaft and cam chain and tappets and distributor exists only because of an unusual cut of this analytic knife. If you were to go to a motor-cycle parts department and ask them for a feedback assembly they wouldn’t know what the hell you were talking about. They don’t split it up that way. No two manufacturers ever split it up quite the same way and every mechanic is familiar with the problem of the part you can’t buy because you can’t find it because the manufacturer considers it a part of something else. 
It is important to see this knife for what it is and not to be fooled into thinking that motorcycles or anything else are the way they are just because the knife happened to cut it up that way. It is important to concentrate on the knife itself. 
Pirsig follows this up later by explaining that the analytic knife inevitably has drawbacks, but that it also is productive in some form. I've spent a great deal of time in the past semester trying to read literature more productively by practicing with the analytic knife, although my professors never called it that; it always astounded me how deftly a professor could subdivide a work into certain constituent elements, both in terms of content and form, which made it far easier to make claims about the texts when the evidence was organized by use of said knife. Pirsig writes:

When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process. That is fairly well understood, at least in the arts. Mark Twain’s experience comes to mind, in which, after he had mastered the analytic knowledge needed to pilot the Mississippi River, he discovered the river had lost its beauty. Something is always killed. But what is less noticed in the arts—something is always created too. And instead of just dwelling on what is killed it’s important also to see what’s created and to see the process as a kind of death-birth continuity that is neither good nor bad, but just is. 
At one point, Pirsig draws attention to the difference between how an ordinary person and a person with machining skills looks at steel:

That’s all the motorcycle is, a system of concepts worked out in steel. There’s no part in it, no shape in it, that is not out of someone’s mind…number three tappet is right on too. One more to go. This had better be it…I’ve noticed that people who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this—that the motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon. They associate metal with given shapes—pipes, rods, girders, tools, parts—all of them fixed and inviolable, and think of it as primarily physical. But a person who does machining or foundry work or forge work or welding sees “steel” as having no shape at all. Steel can be any shape you want if you are skilled enough, and any shape but the one you want if you are not. Shapes, like this tappet, are what you arrive at, what you give to the steel. Steel has no more shape than this old pile of dirt on the engine here. These shapes are all out of someone’s mind. That’s important to see. The steel? Hell, even the steel is out of someone’s mind. There’s no steel in nature. Anyone from the Bronze Age could have told you that. All nature has is a potential for steel. There’s nothing else there. But what’s “potential”? That’s also in someone’s mind!...Ghosts. 
I thought this was almost exactly analogous to the way that improvising or composing musicians approach music, as opposed to how the non-musician does. I've noticed that beginners of music or amateur musicians tend to see the sheet music as a kind of fixed entity, as being "fixed and inviolable" in the sense that deviation from the sheet music is a mistake as a flaw in a steel part would be. But once you've learned just a little bit about improvising or composing music, you realize that music also doesn't have any shape to begin with; in fact, even more fundamental than music is pure sound. Music is in your mind, and sound is the interpretation of physical sensation. Music education, I think, shouldn't delay this fact—one that's so obvious that it can be difficult to grasp. 

Although I highly recommend checking this book out, if only for the strangeness of its combined philosophy and memoir (there's also a present-day/past dynamic going on, with a somewhat convincing father-son conflict that's generally less compelling than the philosophy/early days descending into madness), there's the inevitable cheesy line here or there. But most of the time, even if they come across as cheesy, there's a concision to the writing that lends it authority; about the last point of the last paragraph, Pirsig conveys that idea far better than I did, so he'll have the last word:
Some things you miss because they’re so tiny you overlook them. But some things you don’t see because they’re so huge. We were both looking at the same thing, seeing the same thing, talking about the same thing, thinking about the same thing, except he was looking, seeing, talking, and thinking from a completely different dimension